H&M and the Push for Sustainability in Fast Fashion

The fast fashion retailer has been a leader in promoting sustainability since 2002, but can H&M actually drive meaningful change in the retail industry, or is their campaign another example of corporate greenwashing?

Context on fast fashion today

It is no secret that fast fashion has completely transformed the way we purchase and consume articles of clothing. Low prices, coupled with the almost constant release of new styles and designs, have created a generation of consumers that not only dispose of clothing within 35 days, but also harm the environment, given the 400% increase in carbon emissions required to support such constant demand. [1]


What’s more is that these trends are unlikely to change given that fast fashion has consistently outpaced the growth of other global apparel brands for the past 8 years. [2] In fact, a look into H&M’s Nine Month Report for 2016 highlights that the world’s second largest fast fashion retailer plans a net increase of 425 new stores over the course of 2015-2016. [3] This represents a roughly 10% increase over their existing spread of ~4,000 stores in 62 markets today. With more demand for product, comes ever growing pressure on the environment to provide a constant and sustainable supply of low cost inputs in the form of productive land, water, and energy. In addition, given the increasing unpredictability of weather due climate change, retailers must also start worrying about their toplines. If sales are impacted by the seasonalilty of clothing and seasons no longer follow traditional cycles, retailers must rethink their production and merchandising schedules.

Leading the way in reducing climate change

All of that said, to H&M’s credit, the company has consistently taken action against climate change for the past several years. Looking end to end at the retail value chain, H&M has been able to identify and implement several climate friendly business practices. Some examples include:


  1. Increased utilization of renewable energy sources. H&M has effectively used its clout as a global retailer to stimulate demand for renewable energy sources. Their relentless focus on utilizing renewable outlets has meant that 78% of H&M’s total energy use today comes from renewable sources. [4]
  1. Improved sustainability in cotton farming. Among the many initiatives H&M has on this front, they have committed to sourcing more organic cotton, given its power to reduce carbon emissions by 46%. [4] This reduction in emissions is related to the decreased reliance on synthetic fertilizers that require a lot of fossil fuels to be produced. Even if organic farming is not an option for H&M’s cotton suppliers, their partnership with the Better Cotton Initiative, has allowed H&M to impart more sustainable farming practices on their partners, decreasing their reliance on water and chemical pesticides. [4]
  1. Reduced waste. In 2013, H&M launched a campaign to collect and recycle previously owned cotton clothing. Although current technology limits H&M’s ability to actually reuse more than 20% of the used cotton, H&M has already produced ~1.3M new units of clothing with sustainable “closed loop” material, or recycled cotton. This represents a 300% increase over 2014. [5]
  1. Better transportation and distribution of product. As one can imagine, delivering millions of units of clothing has the potential to generate lots of extra carbon emissions across distribution channels. It is for this reason, H&M has committed to working with transportation service providers that are certified as clean. Similarly, sea freight partners need to demonstrate their performance against the Clean Shipping Index in order to be considered a member of H&M’s logistics network. [4]
  1. Increased education and engagement with consumers. Given customer consumption of clothing accounts for 26% of retail’s climate impact, educating consumers about how they can reduce their own carbon footprint ensures that carbon consciousness is instilled even after purchase. Adding tags that suggest optimal machine washing temperatures at 30 degrees versus 60 immediately helps to reduce machine energy use by half. [4]

Where do we go from here?

Although it is clear that H&M has made important strides in mitigating climate change, skepticism remains as to whether or not these initiatives are enough to counter-balance the increases in production demands. In addition, as mentioned above, technology has not yet advanced enough to effectively recycle clothing, meaning it would take 12 years to recycle 1,000 tons of garment waste. To put this number into context, 1,000 tons of new clothing are produced every 48 hours, showing just how limited the gains are from this initiative. [6]

Taking a step back though, given H&M’s unwavering commitment to environmental sustainability, we would be remiss not to celebrate the progress they have made to date. Looking ahead, a continued focus on consumer education in sustainability along with further investment in garment recycling technology will likely yield the most dividends given the company’s success with other sustainability initiatives. Though this article has not considered the labor side of the equation, making sure that fair labor practices are in place will also be key to their future success.

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[1] James Conca, “Making Climate Change Fashionable – The Garment Industry Takes on Global Warming,” Forbes, December 3, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesconca/2015/12/03/making-climate-change-fashionable-the-garment-industry-takes-on-global-warming/#331dc4ee778a, accessed November 2016.

[2] Marc Bain, “One Chart Shows How Fast Fashion is Reshaping the Global Apparel Industry,” Quartz, April 16, 2016, http://qz.com/825554/hm-zara-primark-and-forever-21-one-euromonitor-chart-shows-how-fast-fashion-is-reshaping-the-global-apparel-industry/, accessed November 2016.

[3] H&M 9 Month Report 2016, accessed November 2016.

[4] H&M Sustainability Report 2016, accessed November 2016.

[5] Nick Carvell, “Meet the Woman Who Made H&M Recycle 100 Million T-shirts,” GQ Magazine, October 28, 2016, http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/article/catarina-midby-h-and-m-sustainability-interview, accessed November 2016.

[6] Lucy Siegle, “Am I a Fool to Expect More than Corporate Greenwashing?,” The Guardian, April 2, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/03/rana-plaza-campaign-handm-recycling, accessed November 2016.


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Student comments on H&M and the Push for Sustainability in Fast Fashion

  1. You have mentioned numerous initiatives which H&M has undertaken to combat climate change and its contribution to climate change. Has H&M taken any steps to establish board oversight of its practices or incorporate sustainability as part of its corporate mission (as we saw with IKEA)? Do you believe that it is truly possible for a firm to earnestly strive for sustainability without doing so? How genuine are these efforts?

  2. Z, you bring to light an important and widespread tension: consumerism persisted by retailers is at odds with their actions to improve the environment. The information you provided on how quickly consumers dispose of clothing and how difficult it is for clothing to be recycled shocked me and should be a wake up call for the fashion community! Because retailers that deliver products at a low price point (like H&M) rely on volume to ensure profitability, they will not be an ally in this fight. It seems like we will have to look to other players in the fashion world to show that conscious consumption is indeed fashionable! In 2016, fashion addicts were captivated by the “capsule wardrobe” which favors a smaller selection of high-quality basics over a crowded closet of disjointed and lower-quality offerings. Will the capsule wardrobe be another fashion fad, or is it a popular way to educate shoppers about the choices they make?

  3. This is a really interesting take on the impact of climate change on an industry that typically doesn’t associate itself with the environment. As a minimalist consumer, I find the rise of fast fashion brands very concerning, especially given H&M’s 10% 2015-2016 in retail footprint on a base of 4,000 existing stores. What was most alarming to learn was that it would take 12 years to recycle 1,000 tons of garment waste…the amount of clothing that’s produced every 48 hours! When we think about negative externalities, what usually comes to mind is power production, heavy manufacturing, and transportation, but your blog post brought to light a really important issue of rising consumerism, especially in emerging markets with a growing middle class. Unfortunately I can’t imagine a future for fashion where the incentives change such that companies like H&M stop offering such cheap, affordable, disposable fashion.

  4. I wonder if any of the initiatives that H&M is proposing can be taken seriously, when H&M is the main driver of “fast fashion”, which relies on the production of low quality and low garments, which have an intrinsic shorter life cycle. I believe H&M should also attempt educating millenials to consider repairing garments, to minimize the number of disposed garments

  5. Thanks Z! Building on the point you made about only 20% of used cotton actually being reused by H&M at the moment- has H&M considered the powerful impact of 2nd hand usage? The proposition to H&M would be to look into collecting clothes, perhaps in return for consumer discounts on next purchase, and then to try to distribute these clothes to communities or individuals in need. Several ways to go about this could be to pair with soup kitchens or with shelters networks. The way I would then think about it, if successful, the recycle or reuse rate would actually be closer to 100% of used cottons collected, and the social impact as well as the climate one would be tremendous.

  6. This was a very informative article about the steps that H&M is taking to help reduce their carbon footprint. Despite these steps, I still think that H&M is incorrectly targeting the low hanging fruit. It hadn’t crossed my mind until reading the Ikea case that a number of retailers produce products that are disposed of in a relatively short amount of time after the consumer purchases the product. This to me represents the largest challenge facing these companies (and ultimately the environment) and where they should spend a majority of efforts. While it is admirable that H&M has launched initiatives reducing its carbon footprint in its supply chain, until they make a concerted effort to find ways to increase the life of their products (or increase ways to recycle products), they are not targeting the heart of the problem. A lot of H&M’s current initiatives might please consumers however it doesn’t seem to be a serious effort to reduce their overall carbon footprint.

  7. Insightful analysis, zaradi! One question that sprang to mind was to what extent H&M’s efforts to educate customers on climate change can have a negative impact on their fast fashion business model, which is entirely based on the cultural norms around the disposability of clothing. Do you think that H&M will be willing to take the risk of having customers realize how damaging fast fashion is to the environment?

  8. The article shares great insight into the industry of fast fashion, where constant renewal of designs and styles drives inherent consumer behavior that produces garment waste and significantly negative environmental impact. I have to agree with AZ, in that the very nature of fast fashion is conducive to exacerbating environmental challenges, and I am skeptical whether the H&M initiatives are really what the organization believes of simply another chapter out of its corporate responsibility for PR. Until the company actively promote and advertise their clothing as recycled fashion with a deliberate intent on revamping its manufacturing processes, I doubt that fast fashion would ever become truly environmentally-conscious.

  9. Insightful article – thank you for writing about fast fashion, Zaradi. As you and several other posters have pointed out, the very nature of fast fashion seems at odds with the idea of sustainability. In fact, as can be seen in this photo and extensively throughout this article, the very existence of the trend is one of leading environmental crises the planet faces: http://www.newsweek.com/2016/09/09/old-clothes-fashion-waste-crisis-494824.html. The article points out that 80% of unwanted clothes end up in landfills and incinerators which could easily offset the good the company is accomplishing in its supply chain. I wonder if anyone has considered regulating these companies to internalize the negative eternalities their clothes produce? In the same way that various chemical plants are required to treat their waste, why not fast fashion companies? Finally, I want to point out that not all fashion companies let themselves off the hook. For example, Patagonia has famously tried to convince consumers not to buy its clothes should they already have viable alternatives. On of their famous initiatives (and ad campaigns) that I find extremely effective can be seen here: http://www.adweek.com/news/advertising-branding/ad-day-patagonia-136745.

  10. Thanks for bringing light to an important issue, Z! One thing that H&M is doing right now that I think is pretty awesome is actually what Amir suggested! They provide 20% off your purchase if you bring in your old clothes. You can drop off your clothes at any location and claim the discount right away. http://twocents.lifehacker.com/h-m-offers-a-20-discount-if-you-give-them-your-old-us-1692304128

    However, even with these results in mind I wonder whether the problem, like others have mentioned, is fundamentally with H&Ms business models. They pump out hundreds of styles and provide cheap quality. Much like IKEA they essentially, through their design choices, encourage and even force consumers to purchase new clothes much more often than needed. Even efforts to collect and donate use clothing are less impactful than we think. This articles describes what really happens to donated clothing and how the negative impact can cross oceans to developing countries. Furthermore, 11% of clothes donated to Goodwill end up in landfills. http://fashionista.com/2016/01/clothing-donation

  11. Hi Z!

    Thanks for the great post! Erik and others have basically made the same points as me, but I’ll share anyway…Disposable/fast fashion are modern trends I’ve certainly found myself caught up in, reaping benefits from, but often left wondering about whether or not the quality is worth the purchase. Similarly, I’m left questioning whether or not H&Ms (or Forever 21’s, Zara’s…) efforts in sustainability make up for the damage that they do on the environment. H&M has quite literally built a business model on mass-producing textile waste. To put in place corrective measures to problems that they created in the first place seems to be overstating the impact they are having. That said, customers are certainly demanding such fashion, so H&M isn’t entirely to fault. To Amir’s point in class, we the consumers have created this trend of disposables. However, if H&M really wants to be a thought-leader and influencer on the issue of sustainable clothing, I would encourage them to heavy-up on the “increased education and engagement with customers” piece you outlined in your post.


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